Alissa Wyatt pulled her VW into the back parking lot of
the Bear Claw Creek Police Department — BCCPD — five
minutes after the task force meeting was set to begin.
Damn. She hated being late. She yanked off her BCCPD ball
cap, twisted her honey-colored hair into a businesslike
bun and shoved her sketches into a nylon portfolio. Then
she bolted for the back entrance, trying not to slip on a
patch of ice and rock salt.
The fierce Colorado mountain winter was cold and raw, but
to Alissa, it felt like coming home. Granted, home was a
relative term in her experience, but that was the goal
here, to make a home. To find a place for herself.
She shouldered through the heavy door and sped past the
desk clerk, heading for the back conference room at a fast
walk. Though Chief Parry might overlook her tardiness, the
others wouldn't. Bear Claw Creek's finest had been slow to
welcome the three women who made up the new Forensics
Division. Not because of their sex, but because Alissa and
her two best friends from way back in the Denver Police
Academy had been brought in to replace Fitzroy O'Malley.
The now-retired Fitz was an icon. A one-man crime lab
who'd been a fixture in the mountain cop shop since long
before most of the veterans had been rooks. And now those
rooks-turned-veterans resented the three-woman team that
had been brought in to run the newly expanded Bear Claw
Creek Crime Lab.
Worried about the impression she might make, Alissa broke
into a jog while she shrugged out of her bulky parka.
"You're late," a voice said from behind her. The dark,
masculine tones grated along her nerve endings, sending up
sparks where sparks had no place being.
She froze midstep, set her teeth and turned. Everyone knew
Detective Tucker McDermott could move as silently as a
wolf when he chose to, but it was still unnerving.
Rumor had it he could hunt as well as a wolf, that he
never gave up until he caught his quarry — at which point
he moved on to another territory. Another hunt.
Typical, she thought with a twist of irritation that had
very little to do with the man in front of her and
everything to do with men in general. But fair or not,
McDermott bugged her for a variety of reasons, not the
least of which was his sheer presence. A hint of wildness
clung to him as he stood opposite her in the hallway,
making her think of mountain air and a hawk's cry, even
when he was dressed for work.
The professionally starched, cream-colored oxford didn't
mute the iron strength that shone in his six-foot frame,
in the taut muscles of his shoulders and chest, and in the
wide-palmed hands that held a pair of fat folders. Though
he wore trendy slacks and polished leather boots, the city
veneer didn't sink beneath his skin. His dark, wavy hair
was too long for convention, his skin too burnished for a
desk job, even in the depths of winter. And his eyes were
the gleaming brown of Bear Claw Canyon at sunset.
Alissa's artistic soul took a snapshot, saving the image
of wilderness contained within walls, even as her
instincts for self-preservation sent her back a step at
the look of pure masculine irritation in his eyes.
She forced a smile and cursed the churn in her
stomach. "Glad to see I'm not the only one running late."
"Actually, you are. Most of us have been here since last
night." He lifted the folders. "The chief sent me for
Alissa hid the wince and clicked her teeth together to
stem the explanation. He didn't need to know that she'd
logged over thirty hours in the past two days, talking
with the victims' families and the witnesses — such as
they were — trying to assemble photographs and sketches.
Trying to get a sense of the crimes. What bound them
together. What set them apart.
Patterns and the lack thereof.
What was the use in explaining? She turned away from
him. "We should get inside."
She noted that he didn't open the door for her, and cursed
herself for noticing. But before she could slip inside the
packed-full room, he leaned down, close enough that she
could feel his warmth and smell the woodsy scent that
clung to him like a second skin.
"Don't worry, I won't hold the door for you. I remember
that you don't like it."
The memory of that one stupid night, the temptation of it
whispered along the side of her throat like a caress.
Yeah, she remembered, too. And, damn, she wished she
didn't. That had almost been a colossal mistake. So she
shot him a glare and hissed, "There's nothing to remember."
But as she stalked into the room and ignored the other
cops' stares, his soft, mocking chuckle followed her.
Then she saw the photographs of three teenage girls tacked
along one wall of the conference room, and Tucker
McDermott, that night, and even her problems with her co-
workers faded into the background as she was reminded why
she was there. Why they were all there.
Three girls were missing, and their time was running out.
If it hadn't already.
Chief Parry stood at the front of the room, a fit, stern
man in his late fifties, with salt-shot brown hair and a
neatly trimmed beard. He didn't comment on Alissa's
tardiness, but a roomful of eyes followed her to the
single empty seat in the corner between Maya Cooper and
Cassie Dumont, her friends and the core of the new Bear
Claw Creek Forensics Division — BCCFD.
They sat as a unit, separated from the others. Alissa
tucked her portfolio between her feet while Chief Parry
gestured toward the board, where the girls' faces were
blown up larger than life. He touched the photo on the far
left, which showed a fey-looking blond wisp of a girl with
blue eyes and a gap between her front teeth.
"Three girls in three weeks," he said, voice somber.
"Twenty-two days ago, sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Walsh was
supposed to meet her friends outside the MovieMogul 10.
She never showed." He moved to the middle picture, which
showed a slightly chubby brunette wearing dark-rimmed
glasses perched over a sprinkling of freckles across the
bridge of her wide nose. "Four days later, seventeen-year-
old Maria Blackhorse failed to meet her date at the
Natural History Museum. Her parents didn't call it in for
nearly forty-eight hours." He moved to the picture on the
far right, which showed another blonde, this one model-
gorgeous in her expensively posed photograph. "Then, two
days ago, eighteen-year-old Holly Barrett disappeared
sometime between noon and 4:00 p.m." He turned and scanned
"Three girls in three weeks, people. We haven't found
their bodies, but we haven't found them alive, either. And
I'll bet my badge that their time is running out."
Alissa didn't need Maya's psychology degree or Cassie's
genius with chemicals and blood spatter to tell her that.
She'd spoken to the two witnesses who thought they'd seen
Elizabeth get into a light-colored van. She'd been to the
victims' houses, talked to their parents.
And, yeah, she had a feeling they were running out of
time, too. The longer a kidnapper kept his victims, the
better his chances of discovery. Unfortunately, the
criminals knew that as well as the cops did and had brutal
ways of protecting themselves.
Chief Parry continued, "I want a quick report from each
division, and then Agent Trouper will give us a rundown of
what's going on at his end." The ten-day-old task force
contained specialists and detectives from the relevant
BCCPD divisions, including Homicide, Missing Persons and
Forensics, plus Garrett Trouper, their FBI liaison. Parry
nodded toward the corner where the three women
sat. "Wyatt, you can get us started with Forensics."
Great. Just great.
Alissa set her teeth, lifted the portfolio, climbed to her
feet and faced the room. She was thirty-one years old and
an eight-year veteran of two different city police forces.
She could do this.
But she was aware of McDermott leaning against the wall at
the back of the room, alone. Aware of the other officers'
eyes on her, men and women both, all wishing Fitz was
there instead of her.
They weren't going to like what she had to report. I've
got nothing, she wanted to say, no reliable witnesses, no
good sketch, no ideas. Nothing.
Instead, she opened the folder, drew out the pitiful list
of the suspect's possible physical traits and a sad
description of the van, and handed it to a surly looking
uniform in the front row. "Please pass these out for me."
She addressed the group. "As you can see here, the two
witnesses at the MovieMogul 10 were only partially
helpful. They saw a man and a light-colored van, but
couldn't be certain of either description…"
She continued to speak, but her attention was drawn to a
stir of motion at the back of the room. When she looked
up, McDermott was gone.
And a frisson of wariness told her something was up.
THE DESK OFFICER'S SUMMONS had pulled Tucker out of an
important meeting, but he couldn't manage to be annoyed by
the interruption. He'd been glad to escape the conference
room. It was too hot. Too crowded.
Hell, who was he kidding? Any room with Alissa Wyatt in it
was too hot and crowded for him. She was a hot ticket, a
bundle of energy with the legs of a Vegas showgirl and the
light-blue eyes of an artist. Half the men on the BCCPD
were panting after her, and the other half wanted her gone.
Tucker straddled the two camps. He wanted her gone, but he
didn't want it to matter. And it wouldn't have mattered if
it hadn't been for that night, when he'd met her on a
crowded dance floor and heard his favorite words, I'm just
in town for a few days.
He wasn't proud of it, but vacation flings were his stock
in trade. He was too much of a nomad for anything more,
and at thirty-five was too damn set in his ways to change
now. Hell, the one time he'd tried to settle down had been
a disaster. He'd hurt a good woman, someone he'd cared
about, though he obviously hadn't cared enough. Since
then, he'd stayed carefully away from nesters, from women
who wanted more from him than he was able to give.
So he'd danced with the just-in-town-for-a-few-days babe
who'd introduced herself as Alissa. He'd reveled in the
drape of her long, honey-colored hair as they danced
close, then closer still. He'd slid his hands beneath her
midriff shirt, riding on the high from closing the
Vanzetti case, one too many beers and the gleam of
encouragement in her eyes.
They'd kissed on the dance floor, then again in the hall
by the phones, moving fast even for him. But the roar of
heat had swept away rationality and battered at the small
kernel of self-preservation he held close to his soul.
They'd stumbled to her rental car wrapped in each other,
not sure where they were going but positive they needed to
get there quickly, before they proved that spontaneous
combustion wasn't a myth.